Overnight Defense: COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops coming by mid-September

Overnight Defense: COVID-19 vaccine mandate for troops coming by mid-September
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Happy Monday and welcome to Overnight Defense. I'm Rebecca Kheel, and here's your nightly guide to the latest developments at the Pentagon, on Capitol Hill and beyond. CLICK HERE to subscribe to the newsletter.

THE TOPLINE: It’s official — it's just a matter of time before troops will be required to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a memo released Monday, Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinBiden administration prepared to use 'other tools' on Iran amid troubled nuclear talks Photos of the Week: Schumer, ASU protest and sea turtles Overnight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine MORE said he will seek to mandate the vaccine by mid-September or when the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) gives full approval to the vaccine, whichever comes first.

Austin also warned that if infection rates get worse he “will not hesitate to act sooner or recommend a different course to the president if I feel the need to do so.” 

“Get the shot. Stay healthy. Stay ready,” Austin wrote in his memo.

What’s next: If the FDA fully approves the vaccine, as reports indicate it might do for the Pfizer shot by early next month, then Austin can move to mandate it on his own.

But if mid-September rolls around and the vaccines are still under emergency use authority as they are now, President BidenJoe BidenMarcus Garvey's descendants call for Biden to pardon civil rights leader posthumously GOP grapples with chaotic Senate primary in Pennsylvania ​​Trump social media startup receives commitment of billion from unidentified 'diverse group' of investors MORE will have to issue a waiver.

Expect that not to be much of a hurdle, though, as Biden released a supportive statement Monday about Austin’s memo.

“Secretary Austin and I share an unshakable commitment to making sure our troops have every tool they need to do their jobs as safely as possible,” he said. “Being vaccinated will enable our service members to stay healthy, to better protect their families, and to ensure that our force is ready to operate anywhere in the world.”

Chairman chimes in: Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyThe bully who pulls the levers of Trump's mind never learns Overnight Defense & National Security — US tries to deter Russian invasion of Ukraine National Guard Bureau chief tests positive for COVID-19 MORE also issued a memo Monday supporting Austin.

Milley’s memo also included a handwritten note at the end: “Getting vaccinated against COVID-19 is a key force protection and readiness issue.”

In the meantime: The military services are to use the time between now and when the mandate is official to craft implementation plans, according to Austin’s memo.

“I have every confidence that service leadership and your commanders will implement this new vaccination program with professionalism, skill and compassion. We will have more to say about this as implementation plans are fully developed,” Austin wrote.

And the department will also continue enforcing Biden’s previous order that all federal employees — military or civilian — attest to being vaccinated or else face restrictions such as masking, regular testing and travel limits, the memo said.

By the numbers: The Pentagon said Monday about 73 percent of active-duty troops are already at least partially vaccinated.

Fully vaccinated are about 62 percent of active-duty troops.

And a reminder that the Pentagon already mandates 17 vaccines for troops, including shots for measles, mumps, diphtheria, hepatitis, smallpox and the flu.

Reaction: Some hardline conservatives who have consistently turned the pandemic into a fight over personal liberties have previously railed against the idea of mandating the vaccine for troops.

But on Monday, top lawmakers in both parties backed Austin’s move.

“The health and safety of our troops, and our national security, is what truly matters, and mandatory vaccination is the proven solution to provide protection from the COVID-19 virus and delta variant,” House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam SmithDavid (Adam) Adam SmithSenate GOP blocks defense bill, throwing it into limbo On steel and aluminum trade, Trumpism still rules Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Pentagon vows more airstrike transparency MORE (D-Wash.) said in a statement. “I’m proud of the Biden-Harris administration for tuning out the critics and focusing on science to provide for the health and wellbeing of our service members and their families, who are the backbone of our national security.”

"As the secretary stated, a healthy and ready force is needed to confront all the challenges we face,” House Armed Services ranking member Mike RogersMichael (Mike) Dennis RogersBiden administration resists tougher Russia sanctions in Congress Senior-level engagement with Russia is good — if it's realistic It's time to overhaul the antiquated and unbalanced military justice system MORE (R-Ala.) said in his own statement. “Vaccines protect our men and women, many of whom live in cramped and crowded conditions, from the spread of disease while at home or deployed across the globe. Teleworking isn’t an option for the soldiers, sailors, marines, airmen and guardians who work every day to confront near-peer rivals and non-state terrorists.”

GRIM AFGHANISTAN NEWS RAISES STAKES FOR BIDEN

A rapidly deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan weeks before the official end of the U.S. military mission is putting pressure on President Biden as he sticks to his plan to pull America out of its longest war.

Over the weekend: The Taliban have seized a string of provincial capitals in recent days, including the strategically and economically important city of Kunduz.

It started Friday with Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz, becoming the first provincial capital to fall to the Taliban. That was followed the next day by the capital of Jawzjan province, Shibirghan.

On Sunday, the capitals Kunduz, Sar-i-Pul and Takhar all fell.

Then on Monday, the Taliban claimed a sixth, Aybak in Samangan province.

Senate briefing: Administration officials briefed senators on the situation behind closed doors Monday and faced what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) described as “tough” questions.

“As the administration’s withdrawal proceeds at full speed, expert warnings have become deadly realities,” McConnell said in a floor speech.

“This morning I attended a classified briefing from administration officials about current conditions on the ground,” he added. “Needless to say, the briefers faced some tough questions about an entirely avoidable situation that is deteriorating faster every day. And they’ll certainly face more as global terrorists feed from the rise of an extremist government in Afghanistan.”

Speaking on the Senate floor, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) said when administration officials were pressed at Monday’s briefing on why Afghan forces were “losing territory and melting away into the landscape,” the briefers were “were very candid: It's not a failure of training. It is a mission that frankly cannot be accomplished.”

“There comes a point when we have to acknowledge that we cannot ask another American to die in a vain effort to change Afghanistan into a modern nation,” Durbin said. “That will only come when the Afghan people reach that conclusion.”

What the Pentagon says: Using so-called over-the-horizon forces, the U.S. military in recent days has conducted some airstrikes in support of Afghan forces, Pentagon press secretary John Kirby confirmed Monday, but he declined to provide any specifics.

“The secretary shares the concern of the international community about the security situation in Afghanistan, which is clearly not going in the right direction,” Kirby said. “Clearly, the security situation is deteriorating, and just over the last, what, 72 hours, roughly five provincial capitals fell to the Taliban. That's deeply concerning.”

Still, Kirby made clear the Afghans are largely on their own now.

“It's their country to defend now. This is their struggle,” he added. “This is their country. These are their military forces. These are their provincial capitals, their people to defend. And it's really going to come down to the leadership that they're willing to exude here at this particular moment.”

Kirby also declined to “speculate” on whether the limited airstrikes the United States is still providing will continue after Aug. 31.

HOUSE CHAIRMAN WANTS NUCLEAR CUTS

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Adam Smith (D-Wash.) has long pushed for cuts to the nuclear budget. And as the Biden administration’s review of U.S. nuclear policy gets underway, he’s pushing the president on the issue too.

In a letter to Biden on Monday, Smith urged him to use the upcoming Nuclear Posture Review to “ensure the nuclear deterrent is safe, secure, reliable, affordable and is balanced across the full spectrum of integrated deterrence,” with “affordable” italicized for emphasis.

“I urge you to ensure this review directly influences your next budget request, in line with your Interim National Security Strategy, which notes the importance of taking steps to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in our national security strategy,” Smith added.

Specifics: Among the particulars Smith called for, he said Biden should ask the Pentagon to provide “specific, credible and realistic options to reduce the requirements that drive the size and diversity of the U.S. arsenal.”

He also said Biden should “consider reducing the circumstances under which you will use or threaten the use of nuclear weapons, including a ‘no-first-use’ policy.”

ON TAP FOR TOMORROW

A Senate Foreign Relations Committee subpanel will hold a hearing on security assistance in the Middle East with testimony from officials from the State and Defense departments at 10 a.m. https://bit.ly/3yMEBPS

Sen. Tammy DuckworthLadda (Tammy) Tammy DuckworthOvernight Defense & National Security — Austin mandates vaccine for Guardsmen Biden signs four bills aimed at helping veterans Wisconsin senators ask outsiders not to exploit parade attack 'for their own political purposes' MORE (D-Ill.) will speak about U.S. national security policy in the Indo-Pacific at the Center for Strategic and International Studies at 11:30 a.m. https://bit.ly/37xL70Z

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